Focus on the Blues- page 3 | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
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Focus on the Blues

Richard Waterman's never-before-published photographs caught the roots music legends at their down-home best

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He opens a drawer, and a gust of regret seems to blow into the living room. “I don’t show this to many people,” he says. He holds up a tray from a photo darkroom. “It’s very depressing.” In his hand are 150 rolls of film all stuck together, representing some 5,000 pictures from the ’60s. “I put them in a closet, and there was some sort of leak from the attic. It filled with water, and the emulsion adhered to the inner sleeves. Many, many, many rolls, gone forever.”


Those corroded strips of negatives are like forgotten songs, the ones that somehow never found their way onto a round, hard surface. Hold a sliver of film toward the light and one can discern faint streaks: tiny figures playing guitar. They are irretrievable now. But the blues is about loss, and Waterman has known his share of the blues, including a stutter (which he has overcome), past cocaine use, whirlwind relationships (he and Raitt were an item for a time) and once-simmering feuds with rival managers. He has lost legions of friends to illness and hard living. But if his life has been about anything, it has been about redressing loss and regret through the balm of rediscovery.


Late in the day, Waterman takes a drive to visit the grave of his friend Mississippi Fred McDowell. The photographer steers his old Mercedes out of Oxford, past signs for Goolsby’s World of Hair and Abner’s Famous Chicken Tenders, past the novelist John Grisham’s massive house set amid the horse pastures. The floor of the passenger’s seat is awash in junk mail and contact sheets. Within an hour, Waterman is standing in a hillside cemetery in Como, Mississippi, population 1,308. The headstone reads: “Mississippi Fred” McDowell, Jan. 12, 1904-July 3, 1972.


Plastic flowers sprout at the marker’s base, where recent visitors have left a silver guitar slide and $1.21 in change. The ash-gray slab, paid for by Waterman, Bonnie Raitt and Chris Strachwitz (the founder of Arhoolie Records), bears lyrics of McDowell’s blues classic “You Got To Move”: “You may be high, / You may be low, / You may be rich, child / You may be poor / But when the Lord / Gets ready / You got to move.”





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